While he’s playing a concert Sonny Rollins likes to stroll around the stage. On occasion he even wanders around the audience, getting close to people, feeling their reactions and exchanging vibrations with them. Once, years ago, he jumped down from the stage, instrument in hand, halfway through a number, and abruptly disappeared. The band was just about to investigate when the tenor saxophone solo began again. Rollins, who had fractured his foot when he jumped, was lying on the floor – but the vigour of his performance was undiminished. The concert was completed with most of the audience not suspecting anything untoward had happened.
Listening to Rollins live can be an overwhelming experience. The American critic Gary Giddins once wrote of the audience stumbling out of one of his gigs ‘palsied’ with excitement. A poet friend of mine compared his playing to a bird singing, a completely natural outpouring of song. That metaphor would work better if there were a bird that makes a sound in the tenor register that is by turn tough, tender and abrasive; an avian songster that honks and hoots but also sighs and coos, whispers and confides, whoops and yells with elation.
Rollins has been known as a towering talent in jazz for a long, long time. Among his innumerable achievements are a long, long list of magnificent recordings, sublime musical partnerships with such musical peers as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Clifford Brown, and a score – for Alfie (1966), starring Michael Caine. In jazz. by general acknowledgement there have been four supreme tenor saxophonists – Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, John Coltrane and Rollins. The other three were all dead before 1970. Rollins is still vigorously with us, just about the last representative – as, he wryly complains, people constantly remind him – of a whole, hugely creative musical world.